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Visionary Transportation Bureaucrats, Part 5: Shailen Bhatt and Kirk Steudle

This is the fifth and final installment of Streetsblog’s series profiling 11 officials who are bringing American cities and towns into the 21st century when it comes to transportation and planning policy. Here are the nine public servants whose work we’ve highlighted so far.

  • Part one: Janette Sadik-Khan, Gabe Klein, and Richard Hall
  • Part two: Keith Parker and Mike McKeever
  • Part three: Joe Calabrese and Ryan Gravel
  • Part four: Jay Primus and Rina Cutler

On to part five…

Shailen Bhatt

Secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation

Secretary Bhatt and his wife take part in a bike ride wearing DelDOT jerseys. Photo: Bike Delaware

Early last year, a coalition of cycling, civic and environmental groups, including Bike Delaware, drafted a letter to Governor Jack Markell, asking him to hire a visionary leader to head DelDOT.

Markell didn’t disappoint. The man he chose for the job, Shailen Bhatt, had played a key role at the Federal Highway Administration administering stimulus funds, particularly the livability initiatives. Bhatt also represented the U.S. at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Cancún.

As DelDOT director, Bhatt represents a clear departure from the old stereotype of the stodgy agency exec who sees road widening as the ultimate end of all transportation planning.

In a presentation at the Delaware Bike Summit last year, Bhatt told cyclists that he wants “to be known as the secretary that really pushed multi-modalism.” Toward that end, Bhatt and Markell have been making admirable progress over the past year. The state of Delaware has moved forward on a statewide network of trails — “bicycle highways” — between its major cities.

Perhaps more importantly, the state is putting its money where its mouth is. The Delaware legislature recently approved $5 million from the state’s general fund to support trail development. That money will be used to obtain a four-to-one federal match — $20 million, all told, which we’re sure will go a long way under Secretary Bhatt.

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Visionary Transpo Bureaucrats, Part 4: Jay Primus and Rina Cutler

This is the fourth part in Streetsblog’s series profiling 11 officials who are bringing American cities and towns into the 21st century when it comes to transportation and planning policy. Read the earlier profiles in part onepart two, and part three.

Jay Primus

Manager, SFMTA’s SFPark program

Jay Primus is the manager of SFPark, a national innovator in dynamic parking policy. Photo: SFMTA_Flickr

In your average city, parking policy is pretty rigid: The parking meters have their rates, and the rates don’t change, no matter how much cruising and double-parking results from prices that don’t reflect demand for curbside space.

That’s not how things work in San Francisco. For the last few years, the SFMTA has been rolling out a groundbreaking program called SFPark, which recognizes that curbside parking is a scarce good and should be priced in response to demand. Headed up by Jay Primus, SFPark could be the model for parking policy that cities all over the country seek to emulate.

Applying the theories of UCLA professor Donald Shoup, SFPark promises to reduce cruising and double-parking by adjusting prices and distributing information, so that drivers find available spaces quickly instead of searching fruitlessly ad nauseam. It’s called “dynamic parking,” and it adds a whole new level of sophistication and intelligence to parking policy — not to mention a mountain of data.

Overseeing the interpretation of and response to all this data is Primus. Managing the parking data — not to mention the public communications challenge that comes with an overhaul of parking prices — is a big job. Primus has been hard at work at it now for three years.

There have been bumps, and as one would expect, some backlash when the program has expanded into areas that currently don’t have meters. Encouragingly, the rollout has gone smoothly in areas that already have meters. Primus himself has said it is too soon to judge the effect of the program.

But there’s no disputing that Primus is leading San Francisco to a new frontier of parking policy. And the lessons learned from SFPark will prove valuable for cities everywhere.

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Visionary Transpo Bureaucrats, Part 3: Joe Calabrese and Ryan Gravel

This is the third part in Streetsblog’s series profiling 11 officials who are bringing American cities and towns into the 21st century when it comes to transportation and planning policy. Read the earlier profiles in part one and part two.

Joe Calabrese

General Manager, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority

Joe Calabrese, head of Cleveland's RTA, is an American BRT pioneer. Photo: GCRTA

In 2007, Greater Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was named best public transit system in North America by the American Public Transit Association. And it wasn’t because this struggling Ohio city has the best trains and buses in the nation — clearly it doesn’t have the resources of New York’s MTA or DC’s Metro. The award recognized RTA’s management, which is truly world class. And no one deserves more credit than Joe Calabrese, the organization’s long-time general manager.

Calabrese has a reputation, inside Northeast Ohio and out, for getting the job done. He’s resourceful. He’s politically astute. And thanks in part to its legacy rail system, greater Cleveland has managed to maintain a respectable transit network despite its dependence on an auto-centric state bureaucracy.

That’s all background for the real reason we chose Calabrese for this list.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Cleveland’s six-mile bus rapid transit system? With dedicated, center-running bus lanes; elevated, pre-paid boarding; and extra-large, frequently-running hybrid buses, Cleveland’s HealthLine is the most advanced BRT corridor in the U.S.

It’s been a big success despite slower-than-anticipated run times. The New York Times swooped into Cleveland recently to remark on the relative bonanza of development taking place along the BRT corridor, which links the city’s two major job centers. Euclid Avenue, the site of the project, once heavily blighted and dangerous, also underwent a road diet. It now includes bike lanes and wide, landscaped sidewalks and medians. The project has led to half a billion dollars in new development.

Pushing this project forward in a region not known for embracing change was no small feat. But with Calabrese spearheading the effort, the Federal Transit Administration gave Cleveland the resources to become a national innovator in bus rapid transit. Calabrese built a broad political coalition in support of the project, including the regional chamber of commerce, the metropolitan planning agency and the state of Ohio.

“Joe was the key to making that project happen,” says Ryan McKenzie, a Cleveland-based sustainability consultant and advocate who helped shape the HealthLine. “The idea of building something in that corridor had languished for decades [though] voters had approved funding for a subway at least 60 years ago.”

Now the project is inspiring other cities. When Detroit made its shift from a light rail plan to BRT, city leaders were quick to point out the success of Cleveland’s system.

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Visionary Transpo Bureaucrats, Part 2: Keith Parker and Mike McKeever

This is the second part in Streetsblog’s series profiling 11 officials who are bringing American cities and towns into the 21st century when it comes to transportation and planning policy. Read the first three profiles in part one.

Keith Parker

President and CEO, VIA Transit, San Antonio (formerly director of the Charlotte Area Transit System, CATS)

San Antonio's Keith Parker has developed a specialty: making transit work in car-centric cities. Photo: San Antonio Business Journal

When San Antonio decided it was time to embrace rail, the city turned to Keith Parker. Formerly the head of the Charlotte Area Transit System, Parker knows what it takes to make transit work in a car-centric city, as the overwhelming success of Charlotte’s LYNX attests.

LYNX smashed ridership expectations and spurred a wave of transit-oriented development. Its success has inspired nearby cities like Durham to get serious about transit, and it is increasingly seen as a national model.

Now San Antonio is looking to emulate that performance. Currently, this central Texas city is the country’s largest with a bus-only transit system. But San Antonio is making up for lost time, having approved plans for 39 miles of light rail and 57 miles of bus rapid transit. The first bus rapid transit line is expected to operate by the end of this year. And the city is planning a three-mile streetcar line through downtown.

Parker, who took the top job at VIA in 2009, is direct about his goals. He told the San Antonio Business Journal shortly after his arrival in the city: “Any community that has not gotten a firm hold on how to deal with congestion, air quality and getting to and from jobs, school and recreational areas is going to get left behind.”

And he’s finding creative ways to get it done. We gave Parker kudos last year for his ingenious move to grab streetcar funds from a fund that would otherwise be used to advance sprawl development in Texas’ unincorporated areas. We also like the program he started in Charlotte to lure people out of their cars and into transit; “Just Try Us” offered a free one-week pass to selected zip codes.

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11 Transportation Officials Who Are Changing the Game

America’s streets are changing for the better. The signs are everywhere: Whether it’s bike sharing in Chattanooga, complete streets in New Orleans or bus rapid transit in Cleveland — cities across the country are trying new things and making impressive progress in the pursuit of safer streets and sustainable transportation.

It’s all thanks to a lot of hard work by a lot of people — advocates, elected officials, and a new breed of policy maker you might call the visionary bureaucrat. This series is about those bureaucrats — the people who are transforming transportation and planning agencies from public sector backwaters into centers of bold innovation and change.

Every day this week, Streetsblog will be highlighting well-known and not-so-well-known transportation officials who are working to put new ideas into action. They’re overcoming bureaucratic and political obstacles, building coalitions, and demonstrating how American transportation systems should adapt for the 21st century.

We compiled this list with help from the Congress for the New Urbanism, Smart Growth America, Transportation for America, Project for Public Spaces, and the State Smart Transportation Initiative. Recognizing that a truly comprehensive list of innovators would be impossible, we aimed to put together a broad cross-section of officials working at different levels of local government, from city agencies to state DOTs. Everyone here is deserving, but not everyone who’s deserving is on the list.

Here’s the first of our five installments.

Janette Sadik-Khan

Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation

Photo: Brad Aaron

What new superlatives can one use to describe Janette Sadik-Khan? At a time when progressive transportation policy is gaining momentum in many American cities, her tenure as commissioner of New York City DOT has set the standard for innovation. This list had to start with her.

Sadik-Khan is in sort of a unique position for a working transportation official, says John Norquist at the Congress for New Urbanism. Most visionary bureaucrats toil away in obscurity, often pushed out of office in a political shuffle before they can see their plans realized. Sadik-Khan has shown remarkable creativity in cutting through the red tape.

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